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Response from MOJ on Conservative Law Schools

Rob Vischer at MOJ responds to my post about St. Thomas running away from it's label as a "conservative" Christian law school. Additionally, Tom Berg of UST Law also has an excellent post on distinguishing "conservative" and Christian.

Rob makes a good point that we should not conflate "conservative" and "orthodox" in principle (even though the conservative/liberal tags been forced upon the Church since at least the council, and often serve as a proxy for orthodoxy and heterodox). However, my complaint about St. Thomas running away from the label "conservative" was for prudential reasons. I am glad that St. Thomas made the clarification about being a Catholic school, which would have been fine it itself and laudable, but then it had to tag the usual disclaimer about how inclusive it is, as if to say, yes, the Church and its teachings can be offensive and intolerant, but we soften the edges around here to accomodate. For better or worse (especially if one is trying to correct improper "labeling"), that is the message folks are going to take away from the disclaimer. Note also, that in my original post I stressed how good inclusiveness can be for the educational mission of a Catholic university, but it should not come at the expense of boldly proclaiming "hard truths." The Church is the most globalist, multicultural institution on earth, and it is not because it softens doctrine or moral teaching to accomodate other perspectives. Often, this seems to be what Western liberals think needs to happen to accomodate others.

My broader point was that this whole "clarification" process is going to scare off a lot of bright Catholic students, who, if going to effect the sort of social change and virtues the Gospel asks of us, need an institution where they will receive the sort of formation that will allow them to pursue this vocation. Part of building a great Catholic law school requires that you have some Catholics as students. While institutional concerns are important, the most important thing in the educational/formation process of a student is often the quality of fellow students in the classroom. If students are not engaged or interested in taking ideas seriously, or are simplistically ideological or "cause" driven, then everyone suffers.

From what I hear and have observed, St. Thomas has lots of students that are "cause" driven, but not serious about the implications of the Catholic intellectual tradition (and that generally didn't change after four years at the undergraduate division of UST). St. Thomas is not landing the bulk of the "orthodox" Catholic students that are going into the profession in droves. Personally, the opportunity to attend UST paled in comparison to Ave Maria, Catholic U, and Notre Dame. The other schools guaranteed there would be at least a "critical mass" of both fidelity of the Magisterium and an encounter with the Catholic intellectual tradition. Good professors and Mass (and UST has both) aren't necessarily enough. Fostering a certain culture on campus, where an orthodox perspective is embraced by both students and professors alike rather than continually challenged and questioned is a deciding factor for a lot of students. When we don't have to always question the basics, such as the authority of the Church, women's ordination, contraception, etc., we can get on to the more important and challenging issues that are really shaping our world, and we have a duty to address. St. Thomas suffers as a Catholic law school because it does not attract more of these students. As Amy Welborn noted, the NPR story was meant to scare its listeners into thinking there are a bunch of little theocrats who are going to impose all sorts of nasty things on their secular, cosmopolitan listeners. Saying that UST is not like one of those schools where faith is at the forefront of everything, where religiously-minded folks can come to be trained to take their faith into the public square, will discourage those that want their faith to impact their work, and believe it really can change the world. And often, those students are both orthodox and politically "conservative." (I commend to Rob and others my post entitled, "Beyond Liberal and Conservative.

I was also thinking that maybe not (always) running away from being labeled as politically conservative could do the school some good as well. It appears that at least a strong plurality (or perhaps a majority) of committed, orthodox Catholics are political "conservatives." Since liberals have implicitly declared in their broad condemnation of our social democrat, anti-war pope that the real issues relate to sexuality and human anthropology, most orthodox Catholics are coming down on the side of political conservatism because of issues like abortion, bioethics, and a popular culture that is largely dysfunctional and sexually-driven. Stating emphatically that the school is not politically conservative (along with including all of the usual inclusiveness buzz words) may also give the impression to prospective students that the school is not a place where conservative ideas are embraced. Judging from the overall low student participation in organizations like the Federalist Society or Law School Republicans on the UST Law campus, and its overall image of having lots of "greens," anti-death penalty folks and other assorted "social justice" advocates (not deeply versed in CST), this should be a cause of concern. Having a robust Federalist Society is almost essential these days for vigorous debates about jurisprudence and constitutional law (among other areas). While a local chapter's hosting of speakers is not dependent upon total student numbers (just a few committed organizers), the debate can't be carried into the halls or classrooms if students aren't willing to engage the ideas. So, maybe not running to disclaim the impression that UST Law is even "politically conservative," which was less the NPR show's angle than the theocratic one, would not be such a bad thing from a prudential standpoint.

So, to sum up, my arguments are aimed at the prudential level and deal with student recruitment and institutional image. If UST runs away from the conservative label, in our day and age (rightly or wrongly), it will have a tough time being perceived as a seriously Catholic institution. This will diminish viewpoint diversity and the overall quality of the student body, as those students turn down the large scholarships offered by UST and head to pastures where their perspective will not be under continued attack, but welcomed and a vital element of the school's identity. At this point, if there is a mass of students who desire a robust Catholicism (that often may manifest itself in politically conservative ways) it is decidedly a subculture.

I appreciate Rob's inclusion of me in the conversation and I look forward to meeting him upon his arrival in the Twin Cities.


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Comments (2)

You suggest that the University of St. Thomas School of Law (unlike Ave Maria, Notre Dame, or Catholic) fails to provide "a 'critical mass' of both fidelity of [to?] the Magisterium and an encounter with the Catholic intellectual tradition." You give no evidence to support these suggestions, and I don't sense that you really know what goes on at St. Thomas.

We have numerous faculty members who teach explicitly from an orthodox Catholic perspective. They include (to name only a few) Teresa Collett, one of the nation's leading defenders of human life and traditional marriage; Charles Reid and Greg Sisk, who have published articles (most recently in the Catholic Lawyer) defending traditional marriage and the responsibility of bishops to take steps against pro-choice politicians; Lisa Schiltz, one of today's most eloquent critics of abortion and its negative effect both on views of women and views of the disabled; and Jerry Organ and Pat Schiltz, who write on the moral formation of law students (Organ writes specifically on moral formation in religious law schools in terms of Catholic social thought). This coming year we will add Rob Vischer, a prolific Catholic scholar who you know from the MOJ blog. I am Protestant, not Catholic, but I have a reputation as a defender of parental choice in education and of religious involvement in politics, and as a critic of anti-Catholic strains in church-state debates.

These faculty members, and others as well, integrate the Catholic intellectual tradition into their classes. (For example, our tax professor, though non-Catholic, brings Catholic social thought to bear at some length on the question whether the tax system should be "flat" or "progressive.") The Catholic tradition and its insights on law, human nature, and social life are put before students and expounded repeatedly. We are almost unique among law schools in requiring Jurisprudence of all students; Charles Reid teaches the course with a substantial component (even more unique) of Catholic natural-law theory, on which he is a prolific scholar. Every year, we require each faculty member to document how he or she has integrated concepts of religious faith into class discussion, and the large majority of materials reported each year are Catholic: encyclicals, USCCB materials, theological works, etc. (This requirement of documenting one's integration of religious concepts into class discussion is also, so far as I know, virtually unique in American law schools, including Notre Dame and Catholic.)

With respect to students, there is simply no basis for your suggestion that orthodox Catholic or politically conservative students should or will feel out of place at St. Thomas. Conservative students participate strongly in class -- I know well from my recent Con Law classes on abortion, euthanasia, and homosexuality. There are plenty of liberal students for conservatives to engage with, but that of course should in no way silence conservative students. An essential element of legal training is exposure to the opposite point of view; how else can one become an effective advocate in disputes with opponents? And while a professor can present both points of view, there is great additional value in having the opposing views advanced by students. I should also add that the best-attended and most extensive roster of student programs at UST Law has been put on by the Federalist Society. The Christian Legal Society has also drawn large audiences in the last two years.

In only our fourth year, we have already created an Institute on Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy, in collaboration with St. Thomas's well-respected (and very orthodox) Center for Catholic Studies. The Institute's mission includes not only sponsoring conferences and other academic programs, but also facilitating the development of curricular materials for integrating the Catholic intellectual tradition into law classes. Our first conference, held last month, was entitled "The Catholic Intellectual Tradition and the Good Society." The Catholic intellectual tradition is and will be a pervasive focus at UST School of Law.

Anyone wishing to get the evidence on the range of faculty, student, and other activities at UST School of Law should surf around our website at http://www.stthomas.edu/law.

Professor Tom Berg
University of St. Thomas School of Law

Jason A.:

Prof. Berg,

Thanks for your comments. Please note that in my comments pertaining to this issue, I have emphasized the insititutional image of the law school and its ability to attract both conservative and orthodox Catholic students. Do read the full text of both of my extended comments. The fact of the matter is that St. Thomas does not yet possess the "bona fides" for many prospective law students around the country looking for a faith-based law school, and/or a specifically Catholic one. Institutionally orthodox or not, it has not fully established this image at the national level. My posts suggested some possibilities for this deficiency and how the MPR fiasco may be another step in the same mistaken direction. Of course those suggestions are open to criticism, which I welcome.

Note also my statement that St. Thomas had both good professors and daily Mass. My point was, however, that good professors (along with institutional structures) are not enough, as a culture and authentically diverse student body must be cultivated to be a good Catholic law school.

My information about what goes on at St. Thomas comes from a number of friends and contacts who are part of the community or are graduates of the school. They generally tend to be orthodox Catholics, both politically conservative and moderate to liberal. I trust their judgment, and my comments reflect their insights along with my own observations.

Your comments seem to indicate that I stated St. Thomas lacked the institutional resources necessary for a fine Catholic law school. I did no such thing. My point about there being a "critical mass" of orthodoxy was perhaps improperly worded, but read in the context of my other statements, should have been taken to refer to the culture of the school, both among the student body as well as what is fostered by the institution (even if the necessary foundations are in place. The fact of the matter is that in the eyes of the public, the jury is still out on the direction UST Law School will take. I offered a diagnosis of what I think is the problem. It seems that outside perception of the school from a number of viewpoints should be welcome. (If not, it would be an interesting parallel to public commentary on internal debates within the Catholic Church at large).

Hopefully, my comments will be taken as constructive criticism, and help those that are actually part of the community think critically about these issues. As a two-time alumnus of the university, I wish to see the Law School succeed. I'm not sure your comments reflected my views accurately, and seemed to imply many things which a throrough reading of my posts did not. Of course, that is the nature of blogging, as an imperfect medium.

All the best. JAA

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